What are the causes of Happiness

By Desmond Yeoh SC

woman lifting puppy in front of man near tree

The Dalai Lama taught that if we want more happiness in our life, we should plant the causes of happiness and avoid the causes of suffering. However, it can be difficult to clearly identify the causes of happiness. Sometimes, problems may turn out to causes of happiness; for example, a person retrenched from his job may subsequently start a thriving business which he loves. So, the loss of his job could be classified as a cause of happiness.

Much research has gone into addressing this question about happiness. Really, the identification of the factors which brings about happiness is not as straight forward as we tend to assume.

Below are some interesting research findings on happiness shared by Professor Paul Dolan, the Head of Department and Professor of Behavioural Science in Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science:

  • People earning over $100,000 a year were not happier than those earning under $25,000;

  • 64 per cent of lawyers agree that they are happy. The proportion is 87 per cent for florists. If we think money brings happiness, we would expect the percentage for lawyers to be higher than the florists;

  • 40 per cent of students reading English at Cambridge had been diagnosed with depression in 2014;

  • Two years following a large lottery win, the neighbours of those who win large amounts are more likely to file for bankruptcy. This implies that they spent themselves into bankruptcy to keep up with their newly rich neighbour;

  • You were twice as likely to get divorced if you spend more than $20,000 on your wedding, and half as likely if you spend less than $1,000;

  • There is no correlation between higher BMI (a measure of body fat) and lower levels of happiness. This debunks the assumption that thinner people are happier because they look better;

  • there is a U-shaped correlation between age and happiness. This implies that we are most unhappy when we are middle-aged! If you are middle-aged now, you can expect to get happier from now onwards;

  • In the education group, the most miserable are those with PHDs. So, too much education may be detrimental to our happiness;

  • Happiness declines when One’s income level exceeds a certain amount.

Professor Dolan emphasised that social media tend to mislead us to think that education, wealth, power and luxurious experiences can bring us happiness when there are little or no correlation between these factors and happiness. When we watch our friends post their own ‘happy occasions’ such as their recent trip overseas or the party/ wedding of the century or their recent luxury purchases, we tend to compare ourselves to them and perhaps delude ourselves to think that our life cannot be happy because we do not share the same experiences. This is obviously delusional.

Daniel Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, found that our minds can “manufacture” happiness no matter what our life experience is. His research found that after one year, the same level of happiness is experienced by a lottery winner and someone who lost the use of his legs. He calls this Synthetic Happiness. Synthetic Happiness is the happiness we can “manufacture” when we don’t get what we want. He used the term “Natural Happiness” for what we get when we get what we want. He found that Synthetic Happiness is every bit as real and enduring as Natural Happiness.

This makes a lot of sense because if it is not so, we should be far happier than our ancestors as modern technology has added significantly to our comforts. The key lies in our ability to accept our current situation instead of craving for more and more.

Free time (but not too much) may also be a cause of happiness. Time poverty is the term coined by Ashley Whillans in her article Time for Happiness. She wrote, “Time poverty exists across all economic strata, and its effects are profound. Research shows that those who feel time-poor experience lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. They experience less joy. They laugh less. They exercise less and are less healthy. Their productivity at work is diminished. They are more likely to get divorced. And in our analysis of the Gallup survey data, my team and I even found that time stress had a stronger negative effect on happiness than being unemployed did”.

“…most of us fall into a trap of spending time to get money, because we believe money will make us happier in the long run”.

“Our thinking is backward. In fact, research consistently shows that the happiest people use their money to buy time. My colleagues and I have conducted correlational, longitudinal, and experimental research with nearly 100,000 working adults from all over the world. We consistently find that people who are willing to give up money to gain more free time — by, say, working fewer hours or paying to outsource disliked tasks — experience more fulfilling social relationships, more satisfying careers, and more joy, and overall, live happier lives.”

From all this research findings, we can conclude that finding happiness is not as simple as getting a qualification, securing a good job, finding your soulmate and have lovely children. We must achieve balance in everything in our life, including wealth, as excessive wealth has been shown to reduce happiness.

The other important aspect is our mind. The ability to accept and make the best of the situation we are in, is a necessary ingredient for happiness.

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